Nintendo Co. is about to release its biggest product for the holiday season, where it will be up against new-generation consoles from rivals Microsoft Corp. and Sony Corp. An early look at the new Mario Kart game for the Switch, featuring augmented reality and your living room as the race track, indicates that Nintendo will be just as competitive.
In Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit, which becomes available from the Japanese gaming giant on Oct. 16, players use their Switch consoles to race and around their home. The action places animated objects in real-world surroundings, along the lines of Pokémon Go.
Here’s how it works: You, holding your Switch, play through what would look like a regular game of Mario Kart if not for your couch and dinner table in the background. You’ll steer around a real toy kart on a track you’ve plotted out in your house. A camera attached to the kart feeds footage to your Switch screen, allowing you to take control of Mario or Luigi as they collect mushrooms and drive laps.
The game, previewed over a Zoom call with a Nintendo representative, looks fun and challenging, with a robust selection of options such as custom races and environments. Everything one might expect from a Mario Kart game is here, from the sound effects to the prominent presence of Lakitu, a friendly monster who sits on a cloud and referees the race, occasionally using a fishing rod to rescue you from danger. You can build elaborate racing tracks out of furniture and cardboard, limited only by the size of your room, which may be a drag for those in New York apartments.
Another limiting factor may be the game’s price. Each box of Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit, which comes with the game and a kart, costs $100. Each player needs both the kart and their own Switch console to play, which means an entry cost of $300-$400 per person. (The Switch Lite sells for $200, while the regular Switch is $300.)
That’s an expensive proposition for a fall in which the world is still facing economic uncertainty due to Covid-19. But the pandemic has been a boon for video games, with people spending more time at home. U.S. video game spending from January through August increased 22% over last year, according to the NPD Group, which tracks sales.
Mat Piscatella, an NPD analyst, said he expects consumers to spend their money on products rather than experiences this holiday season. A dearth of fancy dinners and vacations may allow games like Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit to shine. “There should certainly be dollars available for this type of product should consumers react positively to it, and should sufficient quantities be available,” Piscatella said. He cautioned that it was “tough to have a solid forecast on something so unique while also not knowing how aggressive production will be.”
Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit is the rare Nintendo product developed by a non-Japanese company. An independent game developer called Velan Studios, based in Albany, New York, said they pitched the project to Nintendo three years ago and have been working on it since. “It’s been three years of development of what seemed like one impossible problem to the next,” Velan’s founders said in a blog post Thursday night. “Collaborating with some engineers and game designers at Nintendo to overcome these challenges has been quite the journey.”